Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 2

Kevin Hester

(Part 1 of this two-part article appeared last Tuesday).

In my last post (or part 1) we examined the philosophical background of the early church that influenced the way in which they examined biblical references to creation. Their responses to Atomism (Naturalism) and Neo-platonism demonstrated how they presented Christian truth from a biblical framework. Though it may not have fit in with the predominant worldviews of the day, we saw that the early Fathers were ever insistent that a good God actively created a good world from nothing, and endowed that world with His purpose and design. This week, we will continue our study by looking more closely at how creation was understood in early Christian creeds and the Fathers’ exegesis of the biblical creation accounts. We will see how closely aligned were the stories of creation and redemption.

Early Christian Creeds

The development of the early Christian creeds did not focus specifically on aspects of creation. However their Trinitarian formulation and reification of the early kerygma do provide an important opportunity for them to engage their culture with truth about God and his relationship with the world.

God is often described as Father. The early Christian authors primarily refer this title to God’s relationship with his only-begotten Son. At the same time, there is a consistent undercurrent of discussion among several fathers of the way that God as the agent of creation is symbolically the “Father” of all that exists. This implies God’s ultimate responsibility as the author of creation and the one who sustains it by his word. In fact, this concept of the Word’s presence in both the creation narrative and in the first chapter of John’s gospel link the role of God as Father and the work of creation in a Trinitarian foundation.

In addition, God is referred to as pantokrator (Almighty). Some believe this is just a basic Greek translation of the concept of El Shaddai or God Almighty from the Hebrew text. While this may be partially true, there is more to it than that. Literally, pantokrator speaks to being lord and ruler of all things. Early on in the Eastern church’s tradition it was a reference to monotheism and God’s existence as the one who rules over all things. They consistently argued in their teaching that God’s rule is based in God’s creation. Because He created the world and is responsible for its continued existence, God has the right to do with it what He wills and to command what He wills.

A later addition to the creedal tradition was incorporated in the Western church and found its way into what we call the Apostle’s Creed. It is the phrase “maker of Heaven and Earth.” J.N.D. Kelly, the foremost authority on the creeds, asserts that this addition was actually a restatement of earlier tradition owing to the shift in the west to Latin and the term “Almighty” moving from pantokrator in the Greek to omnipotens in Latin. While the Latin phrase speaks to God’s capacity for creation, it did not have the same connotation. Therefore, the Western church added this phrase as its common confession that all that exists comes from God as an act of conscious and purposeful (indeed gracious) creation.

The word creatorum (maker) here is also important. It indicates that God “started fresh” in creation (de novo). Other phrases like fundamentum (established) were rejected for a term that indicates that all that God did was new and did not make use of pre-existent matter or some aspect of Godself. The term that was most often used in the Eastern church (teknites) was often used to describe a master craftsman or an artificer. This was specifically used over and against gnostic and platonic ideas to demonstrate God’s active and intentional participation in the creative act.

Understanding of Genesis and the Creation Account

Thus, these creedal formularies capture both in language and doctrine, the formulaic expression of the Christian church seeking to explain God’s work in creation as presented in the biblical text. Over and over again they asserted the following:

  1. God actively created the world from nothing
  2. God is the source of all things and the source for all order and purpose in creation.
  3. God’s redemptive purposes include all aspects of God’s good creation now tainted by sin.

When the early church turned to the actual description of creation in Genesis 1, we see aspects of the culture and these clear teachings often in tension. This tension resulted from different ways of reading the text. Much of their work on the texts was written as an apologetic against the common worldviews of their day. As such, they do not directly answer some of the questions we often ask given the apologetic needs or interests of our day. However, that does not mean that they are silent. There are several things that are worthy to note.

The Days of Genesis

There were two basic methods of exegesis of the Biblical text that were predominant during this time. There was a literal or Antiochene tradition of interpretation and the Alexandrian or allegorical method of interpreting scripture. The Cappadocian fathers, including Basil and other early patristic fathers, seem to understand the “days” of creation as literal days providing a literal description of the mode of God’s creative purposes. While Basil recognizes two creations (a spiritual and a material), it is clear that what he has in view is the creation of the immaterial world (angels, etc.) apart from the material world. His discussion in a number of different homilies on the days of creation clearly shows that time was created with the creation of matter and the world, through the Son.

There were some who viewed the days of Genesis as allegorical in nature, and not representative of God’s actual means (or timing) of creation. Origen is perhaps the best example of this. Origen builds upon Philo Iudaeus’ means of interpreting the Torah after the fashion of Neoplatonic philosophy. Of important note in this regard are the teachings of Augustine. Augustine was sympathetic to this reading. He had for a time been an adherent of Manicheism and parroted its mockery of God’s active engagement with the world and Scripture’s use of anthropomorphisms. Following his conversion, he was hesitant to affirm the days of Genesis as an actual description of God’s work. Instead, he argued that God created all things that existed instantaneously and that Scripture’s purpose in relating creation in days was to describe order and give humanity a pattern of existence.

However, in most instances and with the majority of authors, the days were viewed as literal days of creation. Most commentators were quick to say that it wasn’t as if God needed six days to create, but that he did so as a means of accommodation to humanity.

Length of the Days

There was much greater consistency however in the description of the length of the days. When the days were understood to be literal days they were often described as “evening and morning” as represented in the Biblical text and identified with Jesus’ days/nights in the tomb. While there was often an allegorical or eschatological reading of the days as a description of the ages of creation and the world (identified with Daniel), these eschatological descriptions are all ultimately about the spiritual meaning of the text as distinct from the literal meaning and nothing can be made of them to work the “age” concept back into the creation narrative itself. In fact, even for those who make this connection and for those who are hesitant to embrace the literal understanding of the days, their emphasis is upon an immediate or instantaneous creation.

Ex Nihilo

For all Augustine’s reticence to commit to God’s creation in six literal days, he establishes and furthers the early church’s argument that God creates ex nihilo. God’s creation was a new or “de novo” creation that was identified with the creation of time and this world. God did not make use of pre-existent matter because there was nothing beyond or besides God. This world was tied to God’s purposes in establishing his glory and offering His grace. God alone is the responsible agent for all that exists and His omnipotent character meant that He did not need anything else in order to accomplish His work of creation.

Linear Time and Purpose

Something also deserves to be said about the fact that time is created when God created the world. This concept of time outside of God’s nature, is what allows for development and purpose. The Christian church upended the typical view of time as cyclical in the Greco-Roman world and argued that time should be understood as linear. It had a beginning and would ultimately have an end in God. All that was, and is, lies fully under his superintendence and sovereign, purposeful care.

Conclusion

The early church rightly understood that the question of where the world came from was foundational for building a biblical worldview. It is no different today. Errors in cosmogony lead to catastrophic missteps in understanding God, the world, human existence and purpose, and morality. As such, the early church began with Scripture and with God. So should we.

Scripture clearly presents that God Almighty purposefully created the world and continues to superintend His will upon it. God’s creation of the world ex nihilo means that God is the only self-existent being and that all else owes its existence to Him.

In this world, He placed a human couple with whom he desired a relationship. They would serve as His vice-regents to continue to impose the order He had established at creation. Human failure to rightly recognize this order brought sin that has infected all of God’s good creation. And yet, through the God-man Jesus and through the work of human persons redeemed by Him, God is working to renew and restore the goodness of all His creation.

This is the biblical worldview that fueled the early church’s efforts at evangelism and apologetics. While the questions with which the early church struggled were different from ours, the answers must ultimately be the same. While we struggle with the questions of our own age, let us do it in the same spirit and with the same goal of glorifying the Creator God and drawing fallen humanity to Him.

(This article was adapted from a presentation entitled,  “A Historical Christian View of Creation,” which was presented at the Polis Apologetics Conference in Goodlettsville, Tennessee on March 2-4, 2019)

One thought on “Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 2”

Leave a Reply